What happens next

IT WAS EVENING when Mia and her mother reached their building. Overhead, the perpetual pale overcast of the sulphur-seeded sky had flared through the terrible red of sunset and was now starting to dim. Annifrid flicked the car’s headlights onto a higher beam as she guided it down, down, down to find their bay in the cavernous underground bunker of their building.

‘Just in time for Dad’s call,’ said Mia, shouldering her bag and reaching out for her mother’s as well.

‘Just in time.’ Annifrid worried at the car’s various locks and codes. ‘That was a long day, Miss Mia – I could use a quiet night.’ She tipped her head towards her daughter’s, laughing when their two crowns bumped. ‘You’ll have caught me by the time you’re thirteen at this rate,’ she said, smoothing her daughter’s pale hair. ‘How long have I got? A couple more months?’

Mia watched their reflection in the brushed metal walls of the elevator as it carried them up; she liked this quiet, rectangular space, liked picking the similarities, the differences, between her mother’s shape and her own. She liked watching as the lift’s numbers counted through the floors to theirs – the highest those numbers would go. 

‘Mum,’ she said, butting her head on her mother’s shoulder as the lift stopped. ‘I wanted to ask you – I’ve been having this strange little dream.’ 

‘Hmm?’ Her mother was balancing shopping and propping the doors as Mia punched in the code to their place. ‘Tell me about it when we’ve eaten, love? I think I forgot to have lunch.’

And Mia laughed, pushing open the apartment’s heavy door. She expected the silence of her grandfather, quietly waiting. He’d be reading; he’d be gazing through the window; he’d be sitting on the sofa, his pretty contraband parrots chatting by his knee – she was still amazed by how complete, how alive a real bird could be, compared to the constrained and programmed movements of the fo-ones that now graced the city’s landscape. 

Instead, here was music, loud and blaring. Here were several voices and the full squall of the fugitive birds. Beneath all of which, Mia heard the specific dial tone of her father’s daily call.

‘I’ll get that,’ she yelled, running towards the kitchen as she registered who was there: her grandfather – his hands waving and his voice loud; her aunt; and her aunt’s granddaughter, her own young cousin, Adelaide – what were they doing in the city? Travel was such a rare thing now, beyond the Transitions. Her parents’ stories of spontaneous comings and goings belonged to the unreal plots of old films. 

And everyone talking at once.

‘It’s Dad,’ Mia said, nudging her aunt, Lisse, clear of the screen as her mother came in behind.

‘Lisse!’ There was pure joy in Annifrid’s voice – and she’d have the most enormous smile across her face too, Mia knew. Mia punched in the password to take the call.

‘Hiya Dad,’ she said. ‘Guess what? We just walked in and Aunty Lisse and Adelaide are here!’

Her father’s image hovered, his frown frozen on the monitor until the transmission resolved itself.

‘Hello? Mia? Is your mother there? I don’t want to break up the party, but I’m coming home tomorrow – this one’s been cut short. Get your mum, will you, Mi? I’ll see you soon.’

Mia waved her mother over, loitering to try to catch the edge of her parents’ conversation. But there was Adelaide, still tiny for five years old. She wound around Mia’s longer legs, grabbing at her hands. 

‘The pretty birds, Mia, look at Grandpa’s pretty birds – Red and Irene – I would have thought of better names, but I’ve only ever seen fake birds, never real ones. Have you? Lisse says I’m not allowed to talk about them, but I had to make a picture!’ And she dragged the taller girl across the room to see her work. ‘I think they’re just the best things for drawing, and look – I made their sky blue. Did you ever see the sky blue, Mia? I don’t know how long we’re staying – isn’t it exciting? Lisse said there wasn’t enough to eat at our place, but then I guess she always said I’d eat her out of house and home.’

Mia laughed as she cuddled the girl and her drawing. ‘Maybe it’s just a nice surprise for Grandpa,’ she said, trying to shrug off the shock of the surprise. And it was a great day somehow, with her father coming and Lisse and Adelaide magically, unexpectedly here. The precious pair of parrots chirped and burbled and here was her grandfather himself, joining in on the two girls’ embrace. 

‘Looks like Christmas has come early,’ he said, holding them close. ‘I knew good things would come of this broken leg bringing me here.’ He patted at the rigid brace that held his thigh. ‘I’ve even got presents. After dinner–’ Patting down the smaller girl’s immediate anticipation. ‘After dinner, I’ll pass them on.’

And when the meal was eaten and the plates cleared, his four girls, as the old man called them – his two daughters, Annifrid and Lisse; his granddaughter, Mia; his great-granddaughter, Adelaide – busied themselves with the brown-paper parcels he passed round. 

Sitting cross-legged beside him, Mia opened hers first, less careful about peeling its paper.

It was a funny thing, a wooden hoop strung with translucent wires like a spiders’ web. Mia tilted it first one way, then the other: the wires made the pattern of petals from a flower and there was a hole where the stamen should have been. Five strings hung from the lower half of the circle’s circumference, and there was a bright red feather tied to each.

‘I think you know who donated those.’ Her grandfather smiled, nodding his head towards the cage on the floor. ‘It’s a dreamcatcher – they had them in North America, where your grandmother grew up. It’s believed there, the dreams, they’re always in flight – and these things will catch them for you. They keep hold of the bad ones, pass on only the good.’

Holding the tiny mobile high, Mia watched as the light caught the wire to spark the shimmers of rainbow. 

‘Thank you, Grandpa,’ she said. ‘I’ve been having this odd sort of dream and–’

‘Then this will bring you a smooth one.’ Her grandfather patted her hand. ‘I’m sure I can promise you that. I’ve been keeping the feathers, and now seemed as good a time as any to put them to use.’ 

His round, Swedish accent made his words sound like solemn pronouncements – ‘as if you were reciting a prayer’, Mia’s father always said to annoy his atheist father-in-law – and Mia heard his words now like a spell, a benediction.

The feathers switched and flickered in the air and Mia blew on them to make them dance. Such a pretty and frivolous thing; no one gave these sorts of presents any more. Her father would make jibes about superstition – come to think of it, Grandpa himself usually would have, too. 

She blew on the decorations again. Adelaide had hers laid across her lap, patting the feathers as if they were small, soft creatures. Across the table, Annifrid and Lisse were making the same small plays with theirs. 

It was odd that no one was joking about frippery, and that playfulness made Mia uneasy. It was odd that no one was talking about the sudden appearance of Adelaide and Lisse, and that silence made her uneasiness worse.

After a moment, Annifrid laid her present aside and leaned back in her chair, a vast yawn stretching the shape of her face.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘A long day – no party for me here tonight.’ She squeezed her sister’s shoulder and smiled. ‘And it’s musical beds, I guess. Who’s sleeping where? Dad’s already in Mia’s bottom bunk; Mia, you come in with me?’ She reached for her daughter’s hand. ‘Adelaide can have the mat wherever she likes.’ Smiling at her little grand-niece. ‘You have the first shower, sweetheart, while I sort this out. And Lisse, you take the top bunk in Mia’s room, with Dad. Okay?’ Nodding at her sister, her father. ‘Okay. I’ll get some sheets.’ She pushed herself up from the table and stretched her arms high above her head. ‘Not wonderful circumstances, but it’s lovely to have us all here. And Frank will be home tomorrow too.’ She was humming as she followed Lisse and Adelaide along the hall.

THE CRASH, THE shriek, the expletives came a minute or so later.

‘Fucking rats!’ 

The bird seed, thought Mia. Rats were a thing against which everyone guarded, making common cause against the creatures that would eat possessions, wiring, precious food.

‘Mia! Bring me a trap!’ Annifrid’s voice was sharp. ‘A piece of apple, nut paste – fast.’

Mia assembled the device and carried it along to her mother, a dustpan in her other hand. ‘Red and Irene’s seed,’ she said quietly. ‘I should have checked.’ She knelt down at her mother’s feet, brushing at the floor inside the closet.

‘It’s all right; just gave me a fright.’ Annifrid was angling the mattress, the spare sheets, the sleeping bag and its pillows out over her daughter’s head. ‘Birdseed’s always going to be a risk. It’s one of the reasons people liked fo-pets in the first place – you didn’t have to feed them. But we’ll clean this up, we’ll catch the rat – we’ll get this sorted out.’

‘Why did Lisse and Adelaide come? Is something happening out at their place?’ If she could sound casual, Mia might trick her mother into giving her a direct answer.

Annifrid raised her head from the pile of bedding she was assembling and held her daughter’s gaze. ‘All right,’ she said after a beat. ‘I’ll tell you.’ Her voice was soft, running quietly under the sound of music in the living room, the sound of Adelaide’s shower closer by. ‘They ran out of food – thought they had an arrangement with the town just south, but nothing came through when they needed it. A couple of crops failed, and then the road was cut. Lisse chanced a lift with a mechanic coming into the city, and she thought they’d be better off here – more chance of working it out.’ Annifrid straightened the palette, its nest of sheets and covers. ‘There might be more people in a city, but there’s more food here too – more people growing, more people making.’ She shrugged. ‘More to go round.’

Mia nodded. ‘Adelaide thinks she ate them out of house and home,’ she said and her mother laughed.

‘Oh dear – we’d better nip that one in the bud, or she’ll grow up believing it’s true.’ She was patting the tatami mat in the study nook at the end of her own room as her grand-niece came in, wrapped in a towel.

‘Not here, Aunty Frid, please – I’d like to sleep closer to Lisse.’ 

And Annifrid nodded, carrying the mat back along the hallway and baulking at her sister’s luggage scattered across Mia’s room.

‘I wasn’t sure how long we’d stay,’ said Lisse quietly, rubbing
her eyes.

‘We can stack it together, Aunty Lisse, and leave space for Adelaide here.’ Mia gathered her pajamas, her satchel, her clothes for the morning, and dumped them outside the bedroom door. ‘I don’t think this room’s ever had so many creatures sleeping in it – three people and two parrots. That has to be a record.’ 

Adelaide smiled. 

They wedged the luggage up like a dry stone wall, fitting irregular shapes with more cubic ones and moulding the parts to a whole. 

‘We’ll sort this on the weekend,’ said Annifrid, her voice just as quiet as her sister’s, ‘when we’ve more idea how things stand.’

Adelaide was buttoning up her pajamas, flannelette bright with stars – red, yellow, orange – that Mia remembered from her own childhood, and yawning again and again.

‘The one thing you have to remember about sleeping in this room–’ Mia began.

‘I will be careful of your stuff,’ the little girl cut her off. ‘I really will.’

Mia shook her head, smiling at the little girl and ruffling her hair. ‘Not that, Adelaide. The one thing you have to remember about sleeping in this room is to put the parrots to sleep first. Otherwise they keep you awake with their chatter.’ She shook out a heavy drape and held it just clear of the cage. ‘This is the important bit,’ she whispered to Adelaide. ‘Night Red. Night Irene.’ She said the parrots’ names as clearly as she could. ‘You be good. I love you.’

‘Night My-a,’ said Red. ‘You be good. I love you.’

‘Wow.’ Adelaide’s eyes were shining as she watched the birds nestle together on their lower perch before Mia lowered their quilt. ‘If I stay here long enough, they might learn my name too.’ She wiggled into her own thick sleeping bag. ‘Do you think they dream, Mia? Do they talk in their sleep?’

‘That’s exactly what I asked Grandpa when he brought them here,’ Mia laughed. ‘But I haven’t heard them yet.’ She fetched the pretty dreamcatchers from the table, letting the two of them dangle from the fingers of one hand. ‘I’m going to take mine to Mum’s room,’ she said. ‘Shall I hang yours up here? Net you nice dreams?’

Adelaide nodded, snuggled into her cocoon of warmth and padding, with her blonde hair bright at the top like a flare. ‘Maybe I’ll dream of home, Mia – when do you think we’ll go home?’ Her face was a pale punctuation point at the top of the sleeping bag’s length.

Mia smiled at her. What would Mum tell me, if I was as small as Adelaide, and I was afraid? It wasn’t much different to how she still felt sometimes. She squared her shoulders and tried to feel more grown-up. 

‘You know Lisse will take you back home just as soon as she can, little one,’ she said, repurposing the pet name her family had given her for this smaller child. ‘And in the meantime, isn’t it nice here with us? You get Grandpa all to yourselves tomorrow – I wonder what things he’ll think of to play?’

Adelaide’s eyes flickered, slower and heavier with every blink. It was a powerful thing, watching someone go to sleep. Mia laid one hand on the curve of the girl’s hip and let it rest there a while, the weight and warmth of another soul. 

‘Sleep well, little one,’ she said at last, standing up as quietly as she could. ‘Sleep well.’

IN THE LIVING room, the adults were standing around, their voices busy and low.

‘Thought you were going to bed, Mum,’ Mia called, teasing, from the door, and her mother raised a hand in acknowledgement. 

‘So I’ll do my homework then,’ Mia added, and she went along the hall.

In the quiet white of her mother’s bedroom, she hung the dreamcatcher from the top of the blinds and lay on the bed, watching the gentle movement of the pretty red feathers in the breeze as she waited for her history text to load. What if it really works? she thought. What if dreams do fly through air?

She took a deep breath. Her parents’ room had a soft sweet smell that her mother called vanillin; there was a tiny jar of it on the side table, which Mia supposed must be replenished now and then. It was the most pleasing scent she knew, and it made her feel better to smell it. She took another breath and tried to think of a way to describe it. But it was a funny smell, thick and caramel, and it flooded her nose with the first sniff, so that she could hardly recognise it as familiar on the second, the third or the fourth. 

The digital hourglass on her screen overflowed with sand and an image of Charlemagne appeared: her assigned historical figure. She stared at the golden bust, tracing the shape of his cheeks, his nose, his beard. So this is handsome, she thought, the first time it had occurred to her about a man. The idea swirled about with the mutable scent of vanilla, and her stomach churned again.

Who had caused the problem out at Lisse’s place, she wondered? Who had made the wrong call on what should be planted when, or how long supplies ought to last? Who would be responsible for those things in Charlemagne’s world? Was it the king? Was he responsible for his people? 

She knew, of course, that the answer was no. It would be some minor somebody, set upon and punished for their mistake. They’d be first against the wall – she knew that phrase from somewhere. And when she closed her eyes, she remembered her father speaking, a long time ago when the Transitions had begun. 

‘If I take this job, I can be part of the process. I can travel. I can find out what’s really happening out there. It’s better than being first against the wall, and that’s the only other option I can see.’

She’d been younger than Adelaide was now – but where had they been living then? And how had she overheard these strange adult words? Why had she stored them in her mind?

There was a sharp snap from the hallway and then a strange series of thumps. 

‘Mum?’ Mia’s voice was loud; she’d forgotten the little girl asleep next door. ‘Mum? What’s happening?’ 

Annifrid and Lisse ran fast along the hall.

The rat was in the trap. The bar had snapped across its neck but not hard enough to break it – it was dragging itself along the corridor, and dragging the trap as it went. It sounded like the slap of a flapping shoe against the floor – that was all that Mia could think of. She followed Lisse into the bathroom, afraid yet somehow compelled to try to see the rat – the whole contraption – that her aunt held away from her body.

‘You might not want to look at this,’ said Lisse, holding the bar hard across the rat’s neck as it flailed and bit. Her hands moved quickly – as if she was flicking a stiff switch – and then she screamed, but not loud enough to drown out another equally hideous and strangled noise. 

There was a dull thud as the mess hit the floor of the shower stall.

‘What happened?’ Annifrid was there, fast, angling in beside her sister and blocking Mia’s view.

‘The bloody thing’s tail came off,’ Lisse said. ‘I was trying to cervically dislocate it, and the skin and the tail came away.’

Mia felt a wave of sticky sickness rise in her throat and steadied herself against the doorjamb. 

‘They’re too strong, Lisse – it only works with mice. Jesus…’ Annifrid was feeling around on either side of herself; Mia had no idea what for. Then, ‘Get me a hammer, Mi, and get out of here.’ 

And Mia ran for the hallway cupboard, pulling the hammer from its holster and almost throwing it to her mother before she turned away, her hands on her ears. Too slow to dodge the sound of the skull being crushed. Too slow to dodge her aunt’s expletive. Too slow to dodge her mother’s response – ‘I dispatch things all the time, you know. It’s my job.’ And not fast enough to catch her grandfather as he swooned against the hallway’s wall, his broken leg awkwardly delineated against the soft slouch of his fall. 

But he pushed her away as she reached him, signalling at the two women busy with the mess. ‘It’s all right, I’m all right. Off you go.’

Silence then. Coming and going and scuffling, and a bag being tied up. Her mother’s footsteps back through the apartment to the garbage chute in the kitchen. And then Lisse’s voice: ‘Is Adelaide
still asleep?’

Leaving her grandfather on his feet again and in the hallway, Mia crept into her own darkened bedroom. Adelaide was still and silent, her breathing deep. Mia crept out, nodding to her aunt, and leaning close.

‘You okay, Mi?’ Lisse held her against her body. 

Mia nodded.

‘Your mother’s amazing,’ Lisse said. ‘You look like one of those bird toys that dips for water – you ever see one of those things?’

Mia nodded again and made herself smile. ‘Enough with the nodding already?’ she quipped, and it was nice when her aunt laughed in reply. 

In the hallway, her grandfather straightened himself tall again, propping on his stick.

‘Enough already indeed,’ he said. ‘And where’s Annifrid gone now?

‘Kitchen, Grandpa,’ said Mia. And she followed him there, watching him scoop his daughter into a hug as if she was no age at all, and hold her as tight as he could.

‘Sorry, Dad,’ her mother whispered to him. ‘I didn’t want
you to see –’

‘Sweetheart,’ said her grandfather. ‘It’s all right. You do what
you must do.’

‘Thank you,’ said Annfrid. She looked around the kitchen as if it was an unfamiliar place, reaching at last for Mia. ‘And you, young lady – I reckon that’s enough for one night. What do you say?’

‘Will you come and tuck me in?’ Mia held her mother’s hand: it was a thing she hadn’t asked for years.

Annifrid smiled. ‘Of course I will, little one. You go and get ready and I’ll be along. I was going to bed myself, I believe.’

Her grandfather took her hand and kissed it. ‘Bed for all of us, I think, Mia. Really, it’s been a big night.’

She kissed his hand in return, called good night to her aunt over the sound of sluicing water in the shower – no way anyone would stick to the limits on how much water could run through this evening – and made her way along the hall. 

WHEN HER FATHER had started his travelling job, she’d been allowed to sleep in her mother’s bed while he was away. She couldn’t remember when that had stopped – whether she’d made the decision, or been gently returned to her own room. She did remember how nice it was, going to sleep and knowing someone would soon be nearby. 

Maybe that’s why people get married, she thought now. 

The dreamcatcher turned in the breeze, this way, then that, before it settled down to stillness. From where she lay, Mia could see the plants along the decking: not a leaf or blade was moving. She focused on the broad leaf of a strelitzia, transfixed by its immobility.

There was not a breath of air out there.

She kept watching, the anxious feeling she’d had during dinner growing the longer everything sat still and fixed.

‘Mia?’ Annifrid’s voice was soft behind her. ‘Are you awake?’

She nodded, breaking her gaze from the frozen scene outside. ‘Mum, how would we know if the world stopped?’ Her voice was small in the dim room.

‘How what?’

‘How would we know if the world stopped? Nothing’s moving out there, and I thought…’

The surface of the bed rearranged itself as her mother lay down; their length nearly matched head to foot. ‘The world’s not ending, lovely; the world is never going to end. All sorts of things might come and go – but the world, the world goes on.’ She hooked her hand over Mia’s body like a seatbelt. ‘And we didn’t get to talk about your dream.’

Silhouetted against the window, the dreamcatcher hung, inert. 

‘It’s okay, Mum – we can talk about it in the morning.’ Said with a certainty and disinterest Mia almost believed. 

They lay together for a while, their breathing falling into sync. Through the window, Mia could see the windows of the apartments opposite, the lights going off here and there as their neighbours turned in too. Overhead, the overcast orange of the city’s lit night-time glowed like the leftovers of the long-gone fiery sunset. Because darkness itself never came.

The inexorable sweep of the night around the globe: that’s what her grandfather called it – and he had loved it. It had dimmed the skies for the part of his work he loved best, gazing up and out at the stars. He’d taught her the site names of the big, old, wonderful telescope arrays he’d used – Atacama, Boolardie, Colossus: his own ABC.

‘I always found it funny the way we made “sunset” a precise moment in time,’ he’d told her once when she was small. ‘Because the sun never sets – it’s us turning, isn’t it? It’s the Earth turning away for respite, spinning on its poles.’

The shadow of the night would be running on, out past where Mia imagined her father to be, somewhere west and making his way back in. And people would be settling to sleep there too, shutting their eyes and opening up their imaginations. It was funny to realise that you knew nothing of whatever was in your bedroom while you went wherever you went in your dreams.

‘Mum?’ said Mia quietly. ‘I can’t remember where we were living when the Transitions started – when Dad started going away.’

Her mother took a breath, sharp and deep. ‘Sshh, Mia – you’re almost asleep.’ She stroked her daughter’s hair. ‘There are things to forget and there are things to remember. And none of them matter right now.’

The room stilled again; Mia watched the shadows on the curtains, the topography of crests and troughs that they created on the fabric. Her father was a point of light, moving east across the land to come back home. Her father was a point of light, moving fast across the sky to get to morning.

Her mother stroked her hair and shushed a little; Mia’s eyes began to close. She was walking along a beautiful path under a brilliant blue sky, and the sunlight was sparking the world’s colours – the different greens of different leaves; the browns, reds, oranges, greys, purples of trunks and stalks; the floral dot points of pure white, noble purple, and a gold that would suit Charlemagne – to perfect brilliance. 

She was walking along, and she was tiny. She had to reach up to take the hand that was being held out.

She was back in the world of her dream.


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